, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning actor best known for his portrayal of the raincoat-wearing, cigar smoking TV detective Columbo
, died Thursday evening at his home in Beverly Hills, CA; he was 83. Though an exact cause of death was not released by his family, it had been known that Falk was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Though he received two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor in 1960 and 1961 for Murder, Inc.
and Pocketful of Miracles
, and was an acclaimed stage actor, winning a Tony Award for 1972's The Prisoner of Second Avenue
, he was known to millions as the irascible Lieutenant Columbo, one of television most beloved detectives, whose apparent absent-mindedness belied his cunning deductive skills and ease at outwitting even the most clever and devious of criminals. In all, he received four Emmy Awards and 10 nominations for the role, which he played from 1968 (in the TV film Prescription: Murder
) to a special 2003 episode of the series.
Born in New York City in 1927, Falk underwent surgery at only the age of three to have his right eye removed because of a malignant tumor; for the rest of his life he would wear a glass eye, which became one of his most notable traits. Rejected by the armed forces because of his eyesight, he enlisted in the Merchant Marines during World War II, returning home to finish his college education, obtaining a master's degree in public administration and taking a job as an efficiency expert in Hartford, Connecticut in the early 1950s. It was there that he began his acting career, studying with the acclaimed actress and teacher Eva Le Gallienne
. After moving to New York to pursue acting full time, he co-starred in the 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh
alongside Jason Robards
, and was on Broadway within the same year, and started appearing on television as well. In the late '50s he took a number of small film roles, and was hailed by critics for his turn as a murderer in the 1960 gangster film Murder Inc.
, which proved to be his breakthrough role. An Oscar nomination followed, as did a role in Frank Capra
's Pocketful of Miracles
the next year, which was the acclaimed director's last film and for which Falk received a second Oscar nod.
With back-to-back Academy Award nominations and his first Emmy Award (for a 1961 episode of The Dick Powell Theater
), Falk worked steadily throughout the 1960s in both television and film, with small roles in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
and Robin and the 7 Hoods
, and a starring role in the short-lived legal TV series The Trials of O'Brien
. He first played the role of Lieutenant Columbo in the 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder
, which was originally written as a Broadway play and then reworked for television. The film set up a number of tropes for the upcoming TV series: the seeming ineptitude of detective Columbo and the intricate cat-and-mouse mysteries in which the killer, known to viewers, seemed to dance around the detective's bumbling investigations. Columbo
became a TV series in 1971, with a young 25-year-old Steven Spielberg
helming the very first episode. The series was an unqualified hit for NBC, and ran through 1977 in 90 or 120 minute movie-length segments that appeared every third week as part of the network's "Sunday Mystery Movie" series, with a wide variety of acclaimed guest stars. Even after it went off the air, it spawned the short-lived Mrs. Columbo
(based on the detective's unseen wife), starring a young Kate Mulgrew
While becoming one of the signature television stars of the 1970s, Falk also appeared on the big screen in two of close friend John Cassavetes
' films, Husbands
(1970) and the Oscar-nominated A Woman Under the Influence
(1971). Falk also played a Sam Spade
-style detective in the comedy Murder By Death
, and also starred in The Brink's Job
(1978), The Cheap Detective
(also 1978), and The In-Laws
(1979). After the Columbo
series came to a close in 1977, Falk continued acting in film, appearing in two highly notable roles in 1987: the storybook-reading Grandfather in Rob Reiner
's The Princess Bride
, and an acclaimed turn as a slightly modified version of himself as a man who converses with angels in Wim Wender's Wings of Desire
. He returned to the role of Columbo
in 1989 when ABC began commission TV movies centered on the character that would appear twice a year. After his last Columbo
turn in 2003, Falk appeared sporadically in film and TV, his last role in the 2009 indie comedy American Cowslip
In December 2008, his daughter Catherine Falk had filed court documents stating her father suffered from Alzheimer's Disease and petitioned to be his guardian; he is survived by his two daughters and wife, Shera.